LEVELS OF READING; LEVELS OF DISCUSSING
In order to give beginning students a handle on how to do more than read for plot, I tell them, when analyzing a novel for instance, to consider at least three levels and to think of these as demanding greater intellectual effort on their part, as moving progressively towards greater depth:
Level 1: What was said - the objective data of the text, the unambiguous surface elements such as plot, concrete details of place and time, characters' names and descriptions, etc.
Level 2: What was meant by what was said - the author's intended meaning to be found in reinforced or highlighted elements; the varying degrees of text space dedicated to a particular character, idea or theme; repetitive motifs; symbolism; point of view; allusions to other texts; juxtapositions calling attention to certain contrasts; focus of sympathy, winners and losers, etc.
Level 3: What was not meant to be said but was said anyway - aspects not intentionally communicated by the author but reflected in the text as it represents a psychological and cultural artifact. These would include contradictions in the handling of some character, authorial prejudices or enthusiasms related to his or her personal history, unquestioned assumptions or values reflective of the historical period, marked absences from the text (such as the lack of explicit sexual material in a novel by Henry James), contrasts and similarities between this text and others, etc.
In class discussion, a level 1 question might be one such as "in what historical period does the action take place and how do you know?" I once asked a class, "what does Beowulf look like?" This was a "trick" question. It sounded simple and might have been a level 1 question in another work, but with Beowulf we ended up at level 3 since the question focused the class upon the absence of description in the text and the implications of that absence. A level 2 question, might be one such as "which character does the author like best and how do you know?" This question could be altered slightly to move to the third level: "Which character does the author seem unsure about and why?" Always include the "why" or "how do you know?" to thwart a one- word answer and to encourage analysis.